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Christian Book Club Morphs Into Opioid Support Group


A group of women got together at a coffee shop outside of Seattle. They were there to talk about a book about Christian living, but they realized they had something in common - family members who had struggled with addiction. Anna Boiko-Weyrauch of the podcast "Finding Fixes" brought us this story.

ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Henriet Schapelhouman used to be a pastor at a big church. When her son Harrison was in ninth grade, he got kicked out of a Christian school for bringing in tequila. Schapelhouman started homeschooling him part time. But as a pastor, having a son struggling with drugs and alcohol didn't look good for her church.

HENRIET SCHAPELHOUMAN: There's the crazy that people that don't have an addict just don't understand.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: So she resigned. Over the next few years, her son's addiction got worse. Schapelhouman says her friends and faith community pulled away at the worst time.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: There's high highs where it looks like, oh, they're better, because they're pretending really well. And so you fast-forward and think, oh, we're turning a corner; it's going to be better. And then the next - within hours, there's the crash 'cause they're using again, and you're just heartbroken.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Schapelhouman says she was exhausted.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: I would be on my hardwood floor on my arm just sobbing and crying out and just praying, Jesus, please help me; Jesus, please help me.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: At this point, her son was 18 and homeless. So she wrote a book about leading a Christian life called "The Story Lives." It was published in 2012, and Schapelhouman organized a book club to talk about her book. They met at a coffee shop, and six women showed up.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: The first chapter is about, everyone has a story. And so we went around and told our stories.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Schapelhouman went first.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: Part of my story is that my son Harrison started drinking at age 11 and got in trouble with the law, started smoking pot, started using heroin. And he's on the street, and I'm praying for him daily.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: She says the other book club members could relate.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: Somebody else said, yeah, me, too. Then pretty soon, it was like, well, yeah, me three and me four.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Four of the six women were mothers of someone addicted to heroin. A fifth had two brothers who had a substance use disorder.

TERRI BOWMAN: If it weren't so serious, it was almost funny that we were all there together. What were the odds?

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Book club member Terri Bowman.

BOWMAN: We felt it was truly God that brought us all together to process through this.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Bowman's son was addicted to heroin and had moved in with her. Bowman says she was afraid and overwhelmed.

BOWMAN: What will happen tonight? What will happen tomorrow? Will it get worse? Will it get better? Where is he going to go? Will he come home? Will he ever leave our house? (Laughter).

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: But Bowman found she wasn't alone. She was surrounded by others who'd been down this path before, like Pastor Schapelhouman.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: We were these people who'd done our best to bring up these children in a safe environment, taking them to church, putting them in Christian school. And suddenly, one day you wake up, and your child is the opposite of anything you'd ever imagined - has become a criminal, an addict, a liar, a thief. And so our shared experience in so many ways was, how did we get here?

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: The book club was a rare place Schapelhouman and the other women could cry, laugh and talk about their challenges even more than they talked about the book.

Therapist and social worker Lara Okoloko works with families of those struggling with substance use.

LARA OKOLOKO: You, the concerned loved one - you matter. And we need you to sustain this effort so that you don't get burnt out and want nothing to do with this person anymore 'cause they need you.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: The popular myths about cutting ties with addicted loved ones did not work for Pastor Schapelhouman either.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: The advice of the world was very distressing. Kick him out. He needs to just find bottom. Bottom for heroin is death, I think. You need to do this. You need to do that - but not, how are you doing? How can I help you?

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: That's why, as the book club evolved, they made a rule - give support but no advice. In summer 2013, the women moved their meetings to Schapelhouman's house. Schapelhouman says the group continued to embrace their faith.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: We would always put our hope in that our lives could still be meaningful, that Jesus and God was still good and we had a support group that if something went wrong, we were all just a phone call and a prayer on the phone away from each other.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: And eventually, the chaos in some of the families subsided. Pastor Schapelhouman's son Harrison got off heroin using the medication Suboxone. Terri Bowman's son is in recovery, too, with the help of methadone. That's another thing about their community. People on medication-assisted treatment are sometimes not welcome in Christian or secular recovery programs, but not so in this group.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Holy Spirit, you are welcome here. Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Last year, the book-club-turned-support-group-turned-dinner-club became a church. That was five years after the first book club meeting.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: All right. Let's pray. Lord Jesus, thank you for today. Thank you for...

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Schapelhouman is the pastor here. She welcomes the community and leads them in prayer and song.

Ky Byrd comes here with her daughter, who's in recovery from addiction, because she says she feels at peace.

KY BYRD: There is nothing more that somebody could give me because one of the things that you look for when you have someone who is out there in drugs is you just want some peace of mind.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Schapelhouman's son Harrison is now an adult. It was his idea to start the church to help people with addiction and their families.

HARRISON: I always used to tell my mom, how are we supposed to get better if you aren't better? And I was like, don't - please don't take that as an insult. I know I'm a lot worse than you guys are, but this is a family disease.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Looking back, Pastor Schapelhouman says the church isn't immune from experiencing the opioid epidemic. Now she's leading the kind of church she wishes her family had during those hard times.

SCHAPELHOUMAN: I'm excited that we were chosen for this journey by God because if there's no one like us who has gone through it, how can we be the hope and the help for others?

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: The new church is a place of faith and support. It's called True Hope Community.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Boiko-Weyrauch in Seattle.

KING: That story came to us from "Finding Fixes." It's a podcast about solutions to the opioid epidemic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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